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GJIROKASTRA’S  CULTURAL  HERITAGE  
from  communist  museum  city  to  UNESCO  world  heritage  

Written by Marie LE DEVEHAT – student at Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
With the support of Gjirokastra Foundation
July 2015

 

1  

 

Forewords
From the top floor of the Ottoman style house called Zekate, I am watching the city of
Gjirokastra. Such a multicultural city is hard to understand at first sight nonetheless it draws
people to it as one can be attracted by the void. From here I can go through its twisted features,
slowly and carefully. Down the hill is the new town, made up of a combination of concrete
colorful modern buildings and socialist style blocks; this part of the city is divided at its center
by the main road, Bulvardi 18 Shtatori, that exhibited the Italian parades during the fascist
occupation. Above, the old town displays its surrounding castle and its traditional houses. For
decades, such constructions have borne witness to various political troubles, wars and foreign
occupation and now bear the scars of these periods. I am observing some of the houses in ruins,
abandoned or sometimes burnt. Many of them have been reconstructed though and one can
admire their greatness, their beauty and their uniqueness as a testimony of the former Ottoman
period. Among these cultural buildings, I can also notice communist monuments and memorials
scattered around the old town that remind me of the throes of the Albanian people. Fighting for
independence, fighting against dictatorial regimes, fighting for freedom. To me, every single part
of the city has something to tell to new generations and foreigners like me. Hanging around in
the narrow streets of Gjirokastra and treading upon its cobblestones is like a journey through the
past, an exploration of its prosperity and its mistakes. In some neighborhood such as the Old
Bazaar, Palorto or Dunavat, I can still hear the voices of the old busybody ladies described in the
book written by the native of Gjirokastra novelist Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone. At the end,
all periods are intertwined in the city and create an astonishing inimitability that makes
Gjirokastra an amazing study case for everyone interested in history, politics, or in the cultural
heritage of humankind.

 
 

2  

 

1. Introduction
The slanted mountain city of Gjirokastra situated in the South of Albania, is usually called the
city of stone1. From the rooftop of its houses to the cobbled stones of its roads, its majestic castle
to the jagged rocks of its surrounding mountains, Gjirokastra visibly deserves such a designation.
Although Ismail Kadare stated that the city seems to have been “cast up in the valley one
winter’s night”, the city has actually been built over centuries and experienced great historical
movements and various changes in people’s lifestyle.

Gjirokastra from the top floor of Cajupi Hotel located on C. Topulli’s square, main square of the old town

The first architectural component of great importance is most probably the military and
administrative castle built in the 13th century, located on the top of the hill. The oldest quarters of
                                                                                                                       
1

 

KADARA ismail, Chronicle in Stone, 1971

3  

 

the city indeed developed around this Kalaja and Gjirokastra quickly became one of the centers
of the Byzantine Empire. When the Ottoman Empire took the city in 1419, the city became one
of the main administrative units of Ottoman Empire, inhabited by landowners of large estates
and important squires. Therefore, this rather elitist population began to develop an Ottoman style
settlement on the steep slopes of the hill; such combination of characteristics led to the creation
of particular types of residential houses2. From the ninetieth century onward, the city has been
occupied several times by different enemies or empires; from Ali Pasha of Tepelena to Italian
fascist, Greek Army and German Nazi occupations. Thus many of them made their own
expansions and left new constructions behind. Later, the control of the communist regime over
the city added new features to the old town and developed a modern-socialist city stretching
toward the river in the valley. For all these reasons, the architecture of Gjirokastra is an
exceptional testimony to the history of urban life, population movements and radical changes
within our societies.
Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage is of indisputable value.
However, people and political powers in the last century
made different appropriations of such heritage; one can
say each of them had new incentives to protect it. During
the communist period for instance, Gjirokastra was
considered as a great example of national identity and
savoir-faire; while it is now viewed as being of
outstanding cultural importance to the common heritage
of humanity. The former used it to promote an image of
the people’s power within its borders while the latter
advertises the character of such city throughout the world
for the sake of the country’s economy and also for
prestige within the international community.

                                                                                                                       
2

S. DOEMPKE, A.LULO CACA and S. PETRALA, Four historic cities in the western Balkans, under the project
European value in heritage, GCDO, 2012

 
 

4  

 

The first protection policy over the city was adopted in 1961 when the communist regime
declared Gjirokastra as a museum city under the control of state. When the regime collapsed in
the early nineties, the city suffered from the loss of state protection for several years and
seriously deteriorated during this period. In July 2005, Gjirokastra was added to the UNESCO
World Heritage list and therefore reactivated awareness for the need for protection of the city.
Each of these legal statuses has entailed different policies and vicarious responsibilities for the
protection and conservation of Gjirokastra’s heritage divided up among different stakeholders
such as the international community, the state and local communities. The aim of this paper is to
present the transfer of power that occurred regarding the cultural heritage of Gjirokastra, from
the status of museum city given by the communist regime to the status of UNESCO world
heritage. It will present the development of Gjirokastra first viewed as a national heritage –and a
support of propaganda-, then considered as no one’s heritage at the collapse of the communist
regime, and the way toward being a world cultural heritage; in a legal and political perspective.

Gjirokastra during communist time, around 19783
                                                                                                                       
3

Hereafter: All the pictures from communist time are extracted from the book: RIZA EMIN, Gjirokastra ville
musée, Institut des monuments culturels, Editions “8 NENTORI”, Tirana, 1978

 

5  

 

2. Gjirokastra during communist time: a national heritage and pride
The idea of creating a national identity in Albania arose after the independence in the late
ninetieth century as well as in other Balkan countries. After the foreign occupation that occurred
during the World War II, the patriotic ideas reappeared in Albania. The Party of Labour of
Albania (APL here after) led by the native of Gjirokastra Enver Hoxha, took power in 1945, and
remained as the only political party for almost the next fifty years. As with most of the
communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Albanian regime was based on national heroism,
patriotism, and promoted the strength of its people; the regime was supposed to act on the behalf
of its people. The party used fostering a notion of the continuity of Albanian people as one of the
main pillars in the creation of a national identity, through the idea of a pure Albanian tradition.
To this end, the city of Gjirokastra had two main qualities. First of all, the typical feature of its
residential houses enabled the regime to define them as great examples of Albanian or
Gjirokastra dwellings rather than giving any allusion to their obvious ottoman character. 4
Secondly, since Gjirokastra fought against a considerable number of foreign occupations in the
past, and was constantly coveted by Greece after the independence in 1912 and captured several
times; the regime exploited this restless history to display the city as meaningful example of
patriotism and bravery. Finally, Gjirokastra was the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, that fought
himself against the Fascists then the Nazis through resistance movements. For these reasons,
Gjirokastra became one of the main symbols of the vitality of Albanian people.
2.1.

Nationalistic values

Although in most parts of the country the new identity was embodied in the construction of
modern cities or transformation of the old ones, Gjirokastra has been spared thanks to its great
value. Indeed Gjirokastra, together with Berat, is one of the very few cities in Albania that has
not undergone a large scale transformation into a “socialist city” and the modern part has been

                                                                                                                       
4  RIZA  EMIN,  Gjirokastra  ville  musée,  Institut  des  monuments  culturels,  Editions  “8  NENTORI”,  Tirana,  1978  

 
 

6  

 

set apart from the old town5. The new appropriation of Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage from the
Ottoman period, or even before, was necessary to forget about the former influences. The issue
was to give another interpretation of the former cultural heritage of Gjirokastra in order to
present it as the symbol of continuity of Albanian people rather than as a testimony to former
occupations. According to the seventh APL’s congress report of 19786, the regime believed that
the representations in reality might be used as an evidence of the national character and the
popular spirit. The former architecture must therefore be linked somehow to the creation of the
new identity of Albanian people.
7

To this purpose, the regime had to make

choices by selecting the proper heritage to
promote and to protect. They did this first,
legally speaking, by dividing the city in
different zones: the protected zone, for first
category protected monuments, the museum
zone with

first

and

second

category

monuments and the free zone in which one
can find isolated first category monuments.
Each of these zones were ruled by different
policies of restoration and state protection.8
The communist regime wanted to introduce
itself as a patriotic regime and thus the older
architecture was meant to represent the
cultural evolution of the Albanian people
                                                                                                                       
5

M.BICKERT, D.GOLER, cultural heritage and/or development? Impacts of cultural heritage, tourism and cultural
governance on space and society in Bamberg (germany) and Gjirokastra (Albania), in Identity and territorial
character :re-interpreting local-spacial development. 2014
6
RIZA EMIN, Gjirokastra ville musée, Institut des monuments culturels, Editions “8 NENTORI”, Tirana, 1978
7
 Picture : Obelisk monument, rose to commemorate people teaching illegally the Albanian language during
Ottoman occupation, schoolchild admiring the monument around 1978

 

8

 

Council of minister’s decision, n.170, 1961  

7  

 

while new monuments were built to commemorate the national heroes born in Gjirokastra that
fought for independence. Both these ideas were sometimes combined when some traditional
houses or historical buildings were converted into museums promoting national heroes or
history. In line with the Albanian Cultural Revolution launched in the mid-sixties, the communist
regime used the past for contemporary purposes, that is to say for its propaganda, and thus the
heritage served as an instrument of government policy.
Specific examples of such policy uses include the conversion of the brothers Topulli’s house into
an historical museum. Born during the last part of the ninetieth century the brothers Topulli were
nationalistic figures of the Albanian Renaissance; Çerçiz Topulli is considered as the foremost of
heroes native to Gjirokastra since he was a guerrilla fighter who fought to defeat the Ottoman
Empire. The house was destroyed during World War II because of bombings raids and the family
fled to Tirana. In 1962 the house became a first category monument, was nationalized, and in
1963 the regime started the restorations. In 1967 the historical museum promoting the image of
insurgents against the Ottoman Empire’s conquest and other patriotic behaviors was opened.
Nuri and Makbule Topulli, one of Çerçiz Topulli’s nephew and his wife, were running the
museum on the behalf of the communist regime. This demonstrates a great example of the means
used by the party to promote the state, through cultural heritage and national historical
characters, together with the idea of the continuity of the influence of an Albanian family from
generation to generation.

One of the rooms of the
historical museum during
communist time.

 

8  

 

Painting representing Çerçiz Topulli and his fellow, exposed in historical museum, M. Grameno, 1908

Another example is the creation of national liberation war museum in the reconstructed house
where the communist dictator Enver Hoxha was born. Indeed, after the blaze that destroyed the
original house, the party decided to build a new house in 1966, inspired by the traditional
dwellings of Gjirokastra; many classic features have been copied from particular houses around
the city and that led to the creation of a hybrid type of house9. The idea behind this was probably
to show that the leader himself was raised in one of these traditional places, associating himself
with a lot of other national heroes such as the Topulli family. Transforming this place into a
national liberation war museum was thus a powerful symbol for the regime’s propaganda.
                                                                                                                       
9

S. DOEMPKE, A.LULO CACA and S. PETRALA, Four historic cities in the western Balkans, under the project
European value in heritage, GCDO, 2012

 
 

9  

 

Cultural heritage at this time was
therefore almost exclusively used for
nationalistic
communist

purposes.
regime

in

The
Albania

gradually broke its relations with
other European regimes and China to
become entirely isolationist at the
end

of

Albania’s

the

1970’s.

cultural

Therefore

heritage

sites

couldn’t be used as a symbol of
power and wealth outside of its
borders as it is these days; nor as a
great example of human construction
in the rest of the world. The promotion and protection of this heritage was aimed exclusively at
local people and helped the Cultural Revolution’s break with foreign influence. 10
2.2.

Paternalistic state protection and central governance

In 1961, the city of Gjirokastra, together with Berat, was declared a museum city and the
government became the main administrator of the city11. According to the following through of
the council of ministers’ decisions, the city of Gjirokastra was put under state guardianship and
thus the responsibility to maintain, protect and restore Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage belonged
primarily to the state –altbeit not exclusively.
The choice made by the regime to call Gjirokastra a “museum city” might be underlined here.
Such wording seems to present the state as the curator of the city and thus the only one with
decision making power over it. To a certain extent, this idea is close to reality. First of all, the
state was the principal fundraiser and although the restorations and preservation work was made

                                                                                                                       
10

 Picture  :  Visiting  time,  ethnographic  museum,  around  1978  
Council of minister’s decision, n.172, 1961

11

 

10  

 

through local state bodies, it stayed under the central control of Tirana University12. In other
words, the town profited from the huge financial and professional attention emerging from the
central government. More than 80 workers were maintaining the city every day, the protections
rules were very strict and the organization of the folk festival or any other events were
significantly managed and financed by the state. Regarding the public space, it entailed that the
administration of the museum city did not involve the participation of the population in any
decisions and the main local power was the branch of the Party of Labour itself.

Example of restoration work performed by the communist regime

Besides, an important part of the communist regime’s ideology was the suppression of private
ownership, enacted through collectivization and nationalizations. Since Gjirokastra’s heritage is
mainly made of private residential houses, the communist regime laid down in its law on cultural
heritage many measures that allowed itself to decide what kind of utilization must take place in
every classified building. Thus, even though the buildings were not systematically nationalized,
most of the time owners had little decision making power over their properties and had to do
exactly what the state asked them to do. Although the law stated that the residential building
must kept in their primary function to host their owner, if the state considered that the owner did
not use it properly, these can be used for other purposes such as kindergarten, museum etc.
Babameto house was built for two brothers at the end of the ninetieth century. At the end of
World War II two families were thus occupying the building. In 1962 the double house was
                                                                                                                       
12

 

Council of minister’s decision, n.283, 1962

11  

 

declared a first category cultural monument. Probably due to the deteriorated state of relations
between one part of the family and the regime, the right side of the building was turned into a
kindergarten during that time. The other side of the family was well-known and supported by the
government was able to keep their house as their own. It is a great example of the power of the
state over properties in general and the weakness of the ownership status showing that according
to the law no one but the state can take decision regarding the cultural heritage of Gjirokastra.
It can be said that the party prevented the cultural heritage of Gjirokastra to thrive and to evolve;
this idea of complete state protection might be easier to understand over a cultural monument
such as a monument or an archeological site; the city of Gjirokastra was still inhabited though,
and even though it was very well preserved, step by step the city became frozen in time as a
museum.
Therefore, at the time of the collapse of the communist regime, the loss of the central
government’s protection led to the gradual deterioration of the city.
3.

Transition time: no one’s heritage

In the early nineties, the communist government collapsed; after the elections of 1992 the
country faced a shift from dictatorship to democracy. The former regime was to a certain extent
providing jobs and housing for the entire population; its fall led to massive job loss and civil
unrest. People left the country in a significant number due to the political and economic crisis
and migrated to other cities in Albania or even abroad. The country was in dire straits; the law
and policies were required to be rewritten and reinvented in just a few years in order to make up
the delay in the country’s development and to integrate into the free market.
Hence, the protection of cultural heritage became one of the lowest priorities in Gjirokastra. It
was seen as a financial burden and considered as a symbol of past propaganda; it became part of
the general rejection of the former dictatorship. People rather turned back to modernity i.e. to
Europe, and most of them wanted to forget about any oriental, fascist or communist past
influence.

 

12  

 

Babameto house after “transition time”13

3.1.

The city desertion and partial destruction

During this transition period, many reasons led people in Gjirokastra to abandon their houses.
First, since Gjirokastra was the hometown of Enver Hoxha, quite a few families in Gjirokastra
were somehow linked to the regime and thus were directly affected by its collapse. On the other
hand, some people merely left for the sake of freedom after years of repression.
Accordingly, the city faced a significant wave of migration and many of the cultural residential
buildings were abandoned. For instance, the family occupying the right side of Babameto house
left the house immediately following the fall of the regime while some members of the other side
of the house remained in the building for a few more years.
Unfortunately, even though some of them genuinely tried to maintain the dwelling, the last
family members finally left in the late nineties due to the complexity of the situation.
                                                                                                                       
13

 

 Picture : http://chwb.org/albania/activities/babameto-i/  
13  

 

In the same way, building activity was
uncontrolled and the transition to free market
helped to produce new reckless constructions.
It can be said that people and entrepreneurs
were enjoying their new “freedom” by
rejecting the former and new legislations that
were thought of as being arbitrary and almost
exclusively written from the perspective of the
state. Indeed, the new government’s policy
towards cultural heritage was shaky: neither
purpose nor incentive to protect it could be
clearly defined at this time and thus it was
almost impossible to find a compromise about
its management in the future. Especially in the
old town, the lack of urban and preservation
planning engendered illegal constructions and
transformations of monuments.
Example of new concrete construction located
2 meters from the 17th century turbe, Bektashi Sufi Order

 
 

Furthermore the country faced a considerable national crisis in 1997. The economic collapse
triggered by pyramid schemes led to another round of rioting. In the meantime, rebel forces
attacked Gjirokastra on the seventh of March; the Bazaar area was destroyed and many historic
buildings were burnt.
Summing up, at the end of the twentieth century Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage was partly
destroyed or abandoned, and the old town and historic quarters of the city were uncontrolled due
to the deficit of authority in the new political party. Moreover, the general behavior towards the
public domain became ambiguous: the rejection of the former collectivization ideals often led to
no demonstration of personal responsibility whatsoever. One can say cultural heritage became a
sort of no one’s heritage and thus no one’s responsibility.

 

14  

 

Bazaar area after the crisis of 1997 14

3.2.

The decline of paternalism over the city

In Gjirokastra, as well as in other cities in Albania, the killing of the father was embodied in the
fall of Enver Hoxha’s statue that was located on a high platform in the old town. In the
meantime, the armament museum located in the castle was looted. Aware of the exigency, in
1992, the government launched a law on the protection of immovable and movable cultural
property. The text promoted state protection of cultural heritage and provided tougher sentencing
guidelines for those contravening the legislation. This law was not been truly enforced though,
since some of its dispositions were unclear or seemed thoughtless and it most probably shows the
lack of interest of the new executive power towards cultural heritage.

                                                                                                                       
14

 Picture extract from: Prince Research Consultant Limited & J. Robins Architects, The conservation &
Development of Gjirokastra, Report for the Center for Albanian Archeology, June 2002  
 

15  

 

First picture: Enver Hoxha Statue. Then : empty platform after the fall of the statue

During this transition period, the country faced a huge decentralization of the government. It
meant that the democracy had to deal with the division of political power at different levels;
local, regional and national level. Competition came out between these several levels15. As for
Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage, it became difficult to find an agreement on the roles played by
each of the stakeholders and it was finally resolved that the city would remain under state
protection as declared in article one of the 1992 statutes. This measure plainly demonstrates the
will of the government to maintain a form of paternalism over the city and to keep Gjirokastra
mainly under the control of Tirana. Whatever its purposes, the regime did not implement the law
with the means required though.
Meanwhile, apart from the “emergency dispositions” in the 1992 law, the new government
ceased all measures in favor of heritage because of a lack of funds. One can say that the reestablishment of private ownership first led to the deterioration of the buildings. Although some
inhabitants stayed in their classified houses in Gjirokastra, they had no means to maintain it
properly without the former state guardianship and financing. In the new statutes, it was stated
                                                                                                                       
15

 M.BICKERT, D.GOLER, cultural heritage and/or development? Impacts of cultural heritage, tourism and
cultural governance on space and society in Bamberg (germany) and Gjirokastra (Albania), in Identity and
territorial character :re-interpreting local-spacial development. 2014  
 

16  

 

that the funds used to restore the buildings ought to come from different sources: state budget,
foundations, foreign state, private organization and private individuals -the percentage of state
participation was set at 50% for the private houses classified as first degree monuments and 25%
for private house of second degree classification. However, two observations can be made here:
first it should be noted that some these dispositions did not entail any commitment from the state
at all; secondly in practice the state participation in the financing of restoration work in private
houses often did not occur. In other words, this multiplicity of financing sources together with
the lack of management and the misappropriation of money often led to no funds whatsoever.
The museum in the Topulli house for instance immediately closed since the state did not invest
in either the institution or the house anymore.
3.3.

A still dormant economic potential for growth

Step-by-step, as Albanian people felt more free to travel the country and as it became easier to
cross the state’s borders, both the local and international tourism sectors started to develop in
Gjirokastra. Soon, people
who realized that having an
internationally

recognized

cultural heritage site might
be an important factor of
economic development and
they started to consider an
application to the UNESCO
world

heritage

Fortunately,
historic

list.

Gjirokastra’s

center

had

not

completely fallen victim to
the post-socialism intensive development and became a high potential candidate to be the first
world heritage site of Albania.16 Such a project entailed a significant need for reforms though.

                                                                                                                       
16

 

Ibid

17  

 

First of all, it was understood that the decision making power over the historic city of Gjirokastra
could not remain only with the state and must be shared with the local authorities. Hence, from
1998 onward, they began various restoration works, sometimes called public investment and
sometimes called municipality intervention. Among other things, in 1998 and 2002 they restored
the former national liberation war museum, in 1999 they did some engineering works around the
castle and they re-established the armament museum in 2001. In the meantime, the municipality
created an urban plan as well as a strategic scheme for the historic city; the first well thought out
plan since the collapse of the communist regime.

View from the Castle and the US Air force plane displayed on the battlements

Secondly, in 2003, the government launched a new law for the protection of cultural heritage.
For one thing, the duties and responsibilities towards cultural heritage were shared between state
bodies –such as the Cultural Monuments Institute based in Tirana- and local bodies –such as the
subsidiary of Cultural Monuments Institute based in Gjirokastra. For another, the law created
more personal responsibility towards cultural heritage in its article 8 by stating that “each
physical or legal person is binding to preserve the whole of values of the cultural heritage (…)
which he/she owns or gets and use.”; any breach of this disposition led to significant fines.

 

18  

 

However, although the decentralization of the government finally equally occurred in the field of
the cultural heritage, the 2003 statutes often made the improvements hard to realize in practice
due to the complexity of the procedures and the arbitrary aspect of some dispositions- see below.
Finally, it should be noted that in Gjirokastra’s nomination file for the UNESCO list, various
actors produced reports and analysis of the situation; one can find documents emerging from the
city itself, the state through legislation, other state bodies, local NGOs such as Gjirokastra
Conservation Organization and international NGOs such as Packard Foundation or the
International Council on Monuments and Sites. This can be seen as a first step towards a policy
of cooperation in the management and maintenance of Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage, perfectly
in line with the main principals of the UNESCO Convention of 1972 and it thus opened the way
leading to the inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
4.

UNESCO World Heritage status: everyone’s heritage

The UNESCO world heritage list was created in order to preserve the historical and cultural
values of exceptional places and is in accordance with the 1972 UNESCO Convention
concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage -ratified by Albania on
the 10th of July 1989 during the last years of the communist period. As explained above, whilst
the communist regime used Cultural Heritage for contemporary purposes, the UNESCO World
Heritage status is aimed protecting an eternal heritage that is “our legacy from the past, what we
live with today, and what we pass on to future generations”.
Thus, the idea of the sustainability of Cultural Heritage, together with the idea of a common
Heritage, is of a great importance within the UNESCO approach in contrast with former
interpretations. It should be noted that in various UNESCO documents, the wording chosen is
“our World Heritage properties” rather than the World Heritage properties, as heritage belongs
to all.

 

19  

 

When Gjirokastra became a UNESCO
World Heritage Site on the 15th of July
2005, the city finally shifted from
national heritage to world heritage.
Nevertheless, it did not imply that
UNESCO took over the responsibility
to

protect

Gjirokastra’s

Cultural

Heritage as the communist regime did.
Rather, the UNESCO status is mainly
aimed

raising

awareness

among

citizens and governments about the
universal value of the heritage located
in their country, and the necessity to
maintain it at all costs.

Old Bazaaz street

4.1.

The re-interpretation of the city of Gjirokastra

According to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention of 1972, and the Operational guidelines
for its implementation, a World Heritage site must meet at least one of the ten criteria that made
it of outstanding universal value. To fit those criteria, a re-interpretation of Gjirokastra’s Cultural
Heritage was required. Albeit, it can also be underlined that Gjirokastra’s nomination file to the
UNESCO list kept the name of “museum-city of Gjirokastra” for the city application.
First of all, the places that were used for nationalistic purposes during communist period had to
change their content. In this way, the former Liberation war museum, already mentioned and
located in the house where Enver Hoxha was born, turned into an Ethnographic museum. The
transformation of such an institution is a meaningful example as it shows a shift from the display

 

20  

 

of national glory to the emphasizing of items belonging to the universal study of people and
cultures. On the other hand, different institutions such as the historic museum located in the
Topulli house have never been reactivated. This can most probably be explained by the fact that
the Topulli brothers were national heroes that struggled for Albanian independence and thus
cannot be directly related to culture, tradition or history of the humanity. Rather, the former
house of the Albanian writer internationally recognized Ismail Kadare is now under renovations.

Former
Liberation war
museum after
restorations,
turned into
ethnographic
museum.

Furthermore, some traditional houses that fell into disrepair during the post-communist transition
have been restored and opened to visitors; including Zekate house, Skenduli house or Babameto
House. In former communist publications, the same houses were introduced as Gjirokastra’s
dwellings. It is now often said that such houses are a unique blend of Albanian and Ottoman
cultures –this wording can be seen as a nice compromise.
To strengthen the affiliation of Gjirokastra to the World Cultural Heritage community, the
nomination file also contains a comparative study of the city of Gjirokastra with other cities in
Albania and in neighboring countries. Although the study acknowledges the typical and unique
character of Gjirokastra, it also presents some similarities with the city of Berat (Albania) -that

 

21  

 

was also declared museum city during communist time and became world heritage in 2008- and
the city of Safranbulu in Turkey – which became a World Heritage in 1994.
In the end, the committee’s decision that inscribed the Museum-City of Gjirokastra on the World
Heritage List was based on the criteria III and IV of the list; the former acknowledges the fact
that Gjirokastra is a testimony of society and lifestyle influenced by the “culture of Islam in the
Ottoman period” while the latter recognizes the value of the “ottoman town” and its “type of
tower house (Turkish ‘Kule’)”. The formulation chosen here shows a great change in the
appropriation that can be made of Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage. Rather than displaying
Albanian traditions it is now viewed as a testimony of the culture of the Ottoman Empire; this
seems to mark the breaking point with the communist period.
4.2.

The new role played by state sovereignty

On the whole, Gjirokastra had to prove its typical character and, at the same time, that it was a
World Heritage “that belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which
they are located”.17
As for the role played by the state in this new context, it has not disappeared entirely;
contrastingly, the states parties to the 1972 Convention received new duties and responsibilities
in protecting and preserving the cultural heritage located on their territory. The second chapter of
the Convention -national protection and international protection of the cultural and national
heritage- displays the new role played by the State within the international community.
According to the text, a UNESCO World Heritage Site essentially belongs to the state on which
it is located albeit it is of everyone’s interest to protect and to preserve it. Indeed, the article 6 of
the UNESCO Convention states that state sovereignty is still the main principle; however it adds
that the site becomes a concern for the World Heritage’s community as a whole. Therefore the
duty to protect the site belongs primarily to the state, “the utmost of its resources and when
appropriate with international assistance” and the international community is viewed more as
support or a last option for the country rather than a body with decision-making power. If
                                                                                                                       
17

 

http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/

22  

 

necessary, UNESCO might have the role of a supervisor though. The status implies the
requirement for the state to write reports to the World Heritage Committee providing UNESCO
with a degree of control over the city that enables it, if the committee judges it necessary, to
withdraw the site from the World Heritage list or to inscribe the site on the World Heritage in
Danger list.
 

For a World Heritage site like the city of Gjirokastra, the concept of good governance by the
state is of great importance. Indeed, while some other sites in the world are often a single
building or compact group of buildings, Gjirokastra’s historic center that is under protection
measures 162,5 hectares and is composed of 56 first category monuments and around 559 second
category monuments. In that context, the state has a significant duty to ensure the participation of
other actors, but also it has to adopt
a new policy in order to create and
maximize

human

and

legal

resources. This should be done
through the implementation of new
legislations, better enforcement of
existing laws and the revision of
some

inadequate

remaining

dispositions. Furthermore, the state
has to ensure the creation of a
department dedicated to cultural
heritage maintenance, as well as
national

and

regional

political

centers in charge of the historic
center of Gjirokastra. In short, the
state is primarily responsible to
ensure the smooth progress of the
national and international system
of co-operation.

 

23  

 

4.3.

The co-operation policy and international assistance

First and foremost, the UNESCO Convention mainly focuses on the international system of cooperation and assistance “design to support the state party”. In this way, the new status given to
Gjirokastra opened access to the World Heritage fund or international assistance under certain
conditions. For instance, the city of Gjirokastra got assistance from this fund on two occasions:
the first was in 2002, and was aimed at the preparation of the nomination file; the second was in
2007 to assist the elaboration of a common management plan together with the city of Berat.
This assistance is usually given on rare occasions, mostly for large-scale projects.
In addition, such a status helps to get access to external funds delivered by international NGOs,
international investors, foreign countries or the European Union. These funds can be requested
by the state itself, the municipality or other actors such as local or transnational NGOs or civil
societies. In this context, the role
played

by

NGOs

significantly

expanded in the past few years18.
Among other things, Gjirokastra
took part in two significant projects
involving

European

European

Values

in

Union:
Heritage

(EVAH) and Revitalization in the
historic

cities

Gjirokastra

of

Berat

(REVATO).

and
The

former creates a dialogue between
four historic cities in the Balkans and promotes common cultural values, in order to prepare a
better application to the European Union for candidate countries such as Albania, Kosovo and
The Republic of Macedonia; it was funded by the European commission through the Instrument
                                                                                                                       
18

M.BICKERT, D.GOLER, cultural heritage and/or development? Impacts of cultural heritage, tourism and cultural
governance on space and society in Bamberg (germany) and Gjirokastra (Albania), in Identity and territorial
character :re-interpreting local-spacial development. 2014

 
 

24  

 

for Pre-Accession Assistance. The latter is partnership between the two UNESCO cities of
Albania and is aimed at the restoration and preservation of built heritage i.e. abandoned
monumental houses; it was also financed by the European Union. Both of them were elaborated
by local and international NGOs such as Gjirokastra Foundation and Cultural Heritage Without
Borders.
Far from the former paternalistic state protection, the UNESCO status offers an international
recognition that led to the involvement of other significant actors in the maintenance of the
UNESCO city of Gjirokastra. It is also a testimony to the cultural value of the site worldwide and
brings tourism from all over the world. However, the role played by the international community
has sometimes been misunderstood by people related directly or indirectly to this heritage, and
sometimes some clarification is needed. In the same way, some changes must be made in order
to improve the management of the historic city of Gjirokastra.

 

25  

 

5.

The way forward

Although there has been a significant amount of progress, there are still changes to be made in
order to improve the maintenance of the World Heritage city of Gjirokastra.
First of all, the link between the local and international community has not been completely
integrated yet. It seems that sometimes the international community is still not involved in the
management of the city and thus the dialogue remains quite poor; this prevents the city from
having a more efficient and external point of view over the city’s situation and from seeing what
improvements need to be done. It can be said that cultural matters within political debates are
still weak, even with the local stakeholders. Furthermore, many of the private owners of cultural
buildings have little idea about the UNESCO World Heritage regime. This lack of awareness is
probably due to the absence of a popular discussion about the system and a lack of publicity.19 A
lot of them still believe that UNESCO will be the provider that the communist regime used to be
and do not seem to recognise that the status can be lost in the case of incorrect management of
the city.
20

In the same way, some events

should not be organized exclusively
for locals and must be expanded to
capture

a

wider

audience

as

Gjirokastra is now as international as
it is an Albanian city. For instance,
during the 10th year anniversary of
the UNESCO inscription, the evening
event included concert and speeches
where everything was only available
in Albanian language. Also, the
                                                                                                                       
19

S. DOEMPKE, A.LULO CACA and S. PETRALA, Four historic cities in the western Balkans, under the project
European value in heritage, GCDO, 2012
20
10 years of UNESCO night, 15.07.2015  

 

26  

 

participants were mostly locals. Such events related to the international status of the city must
involve more of the international community and, to me, request foreign participants either in the
debates or even international “venues” in the shows.
Regarding the legislation work in the cultural heritage field, as well as in the law making process
in general, the lack of transparency and the lack of discussion are significant issues. Indeed, in
the course of the year 2015, the Ministry of Culture is expected to launch a new cultural heritage
law and until now, no public discussions have been seriously opened. It is a pity, indeed, that
many issues related to the ownership of historical buildings remain as the 2003 law in force is
not efficient on such issues. Among other things, it prevents the state from intervening when
empty historical buildings are falling apart, and it is a hindrance for restoration work in general.
Without an open dialogue preceding the drafting of the new Cultural Heritage law, one can fear
the repetition of such reckless dispositions in the future. For instance, the article 37 of the 2003
law promotes an irrational system of forced loans for the owners of cultural buildings that cannot
afford the restoration work. Another example can be found in the article 39 of the 2003 law that
states that “the cultural monuments may be revitalized for administrative and social-cultural
reasons”. Since every cultural building cannot be used only for administration or culture, this
might prevent the revitalization of buildings for other purposes that will not necessarily affect the
monument’s value –for instance the revitalization of buildings into luxury hotels or even Hostels.
The same is true for the transformation of historical buildings still currently considered as illegal
even though they respect the cultural environment of the historic town. This is true, for instance,
for the Hotel Kalemi located in the old town; it is still considered as an illegal construction
despite being one of the most important establishments in Gjirokastra.
Furthermore, many administrative procedures turned out to be so complicated that it prevents the
achievement of some beneficial projects. Indeed, the wielding of power between the Cultural
Monument Institute located in Tirana and its local subsidiary in Gjirokastra is still sometimes
competitive. Thus, the citizens or NGOs’ initiatives in Cultural Heritage have to be studied by
many offices and different degree committees in a very strict majority voting system and because
of that such initiatives sometimes did not come to fruition.

 

27  

 

Finally, I believe that many facilities could improve the number of tourists in Gjirokastra and
therefore its development in the future. There is a lack of good connections between Gjirokastra
and some neighboring cities. The bus schedules are not completely clear for foreigners and
sometimes getting into Gjirokastra can turn into a real challenge. Also, even though Ioaninna
airport in Greece is 1.30 hours from Gjirokastra, there is only two daily buses to make the
journey, which prevents people from being able to organize a weekend in Gjirokastra since
getting there will take approximately a minimum of 10 hours from every capital in Europe. In the
same way, the connection between the bus station down town and the bus going to the old town.
Many tourists must take a taxi to get into the old town since it is very hard to find the proper bus
when you have just arrived into this unknown territory. The same is true for the lack of
information at the tourism information center on what to do, activities, schedules etc.
In my opinion, Gjirokastra has a real potential that is not completely fulfilled due to a lack of
management and the absence of discussion between the different stakeholders involved about
“the way forward” for Gjirokastra. It is an amazing city, inhabited by warm people that have so
much to share about their city. The cultural heritage in Gjirokastra is total, from its cultural
buildings to its iso-polyphonic song, its handicrafts and its typical food that cannot be found
anywhere else in the country. I believe the awareness among its people is rising, especially
among the new generation, and that they will fight for continuing the development of their city.
Many things have changed in the past few years and one cannot expect everything to evolve so
quickly. Nevertheless, it is important to remind everyone that nothing should be taken for
granted, especially in a city like Gjirokastra that faced so many throes during the last century,
and that many improvements are to be done in the future.

 

28  


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